Blurring the Border
Why isn't it enough just to rock anymore? Because rock 'n' roll sounds like a beer commercial? Well, so does techno. So does hip hop. Besides, indie rockers drink beer, don't they? All rock 'n' rollers drink beer. Don't they?
These are the questions that try men's souls. Can one enjoy the earthy reassurance of one's roots--accept the gravitational pull of familiar rhythms, imagine a tradition that doesn't demand the abject surrender of individuality--without wallowing in the weedy solipsism of a Son Volt or burnishing the mythic egotism of a Lucinda Williams? Does the past have a future?
In other words, how will Cesar Rosas survive? Oh, I'm sure Rosas will get by as surely as any established professional musician, if only because he won't likely be downsized out of his day job in Los Lobos any time soon. Yet at the core of the singer-guitarist's stylistically diverse, unquestionably palatable, ultimately negligible recent solo endeavor, Soul Disguise, was a hollow only the smoke and sweat of a live show could fill. And his earnest house rocking clearly exuded too much soul and not enough disguise to be heard as anything but irrelevant.
Capturing a spiritual phantasm--soul--in digital form requires a cagey guile. "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" DJ Shadow asked on 1996's Entroducing..., courting a cynical generation that probably found his smug play on hippie navel-gazing as cloyingly cheesy as he did. The wily pan-globalism of Dose (Atlantic), the second release from Los Lobos offshoot Latin Playboys, is one amorphous response to Shadow's query. To paraphrase one of the more prominent white ironists of our day, Pavement's Steve Malkmus: If their soul has a shape, it is an ellipse.
The practiced rock tropes that first delivered Los Lobos popular acclaim 15 years ago ring today with a crisp confidence; this is the sound of a band refusing to play down either its musical competence or lyrical earnestness. Unlike X, the Blasters, or the dozens of other roots groups that emerged during the Reagan '80s, Los Lobos weren't thrift-shopping for kitschy Americana to spruce up their postpunk crash pads. These East L.A. barrio lifers were there to remind us that they, too, were born in the U.S.A. But, as their career progressed, they were also smart enough to know that the prideful conservatism of their early Tejano rock 'n' roll would have seemed disingenuous had they followed it into wizened middle age.
By 1992 the yelp of grunge sincerity was confusing all categories, and the parameters of roots cultivation had to be redefined. For Kiko, Los Lobos hitched up with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who had already made an honorable name for themselves by skillfully shifting microphones around recording studios to create aural cartoons of obscure, evocative pre-rock pasts. And a list of historically minded eccentrics--Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits--had called on them to provide needed variations on the shticks that had become limiting.
When David Hidalgo and Louie Perez hied off with Froom and Blake for the gorgeous Latin Playboys, however, the studio interplay jelled in a new, unexpected fashion. Critics dubbed the sound "magic realism"--partially because the authors were Latins, of course, but also because of suggestively imagistic lyrics that held up even as page poetry. The music sounded familiar but blurred, suggesting genres rather than citing lineage. At the height of the mid-'90s craze for lo-fi guitar rock and trip-hop pop, Latin Playboys perfected both--setting opaque, yet rich, sonic scenery against loose post-Latin rhythms.
"This is what I am," Hidalgo declared on "Crayon Sun," but the gauzy "this" in which he draped his identity dissolved in its own fragmented lyricism. Here was a reworking of the past that paid heed to no specific tradition, a humble eclecticism that loafed at ease among the scattered shards of assorted cultures rather than yoking them into an ironic whole.
Yet if Latin Playboys was oceanic and suggestive, Dose bristles with so many hooks you don't know which way to hum. Basslines, brittle guitar riffs, and filtered percussion are layered so intricately you don't immediately notice that the album's weird pleasures all exist on the surface. Latin Playboys may have murmured in the language of dreams, but Dose offers the sort of familiar reveries that gradually evolve out of casual memories.
A whiny, status-conscious kid is embarrassed by his dad's truck. A chorus shouts, "Get back" without rancor or insistence, never identifying who should get back, to where, or why. A bemused Perez twists "one world" cant into the morbid assertion that once "they put you in the ground/No matter who you are--you end up looking brown." Each lyric pokes up from the mix, makes its diffuse point, and sinks back beneath the rhythms. Throughout, Dose tumbles with the momentum of studio professionals eager to outdo themselves in great songs. Yet its virtuosity and wit is tempered by a workmanlike humility--all experimentation is done in the spirit of collective composition.
Besides, the verbal elements of their soul snapshots can only be fragmentary; it's the experience of working through the album's sonic fields that will define Dose for the listener. The unclassifiably "exotic" Tracy Bonham violin that slices through "Fiesta Erotica" defies you to pinpoint its geographic origin. The Stevie Wonder-like synthesizer gurgling among the street sounds on "Tormenta Boulevard" presents technological experimentation at its most charmingly humane. And then there's "Toro," a clamorous 12-bar blues that's crammed into a tight monophonic channel until it simultaneously sounds as much like a novelty number as a Beck single, and as ancient as a field holler. It's the Latin Playboys' way of saying that they, too, want to continue to rock, and that they know there will come a time when rocking out in the open will again seem appropriate. But until then they'll do so on the sly, in a roundabout manner, and by any means necessary.
Latin Playboys play Saturday, April 24 at First Ave.; (612) 338-8388.
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